Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Don't fret, panic, flap, keep a lid on that millisecond of 'squeaky-bum', maintain course and continue sublimely past the frothy, snorting behemoth.
A 60-year old swamper stands at the rear of the mokoro (canoe), 4m pole in hand, thrusting forward, slowly, gently, surely, his eyes glued to the hippopotamus. His 70-year-old brother stands on the prow, poling, pushing too, in tandem, making no erratic motions, only leaning forward, dipping the v-end of his long pole into the water, lending his torso's weight to his back muscles, soothing the craft forward through the grass tufts, eyes too locked on the receding hazard
The hippo was only curious, alerting interluders to his presence: come any closer and deal with me, and my 40cm ivories.
That's the stereotypical engagement conjured up, and encountered, when people speak of taking a mokoro ride in the Okavango Delta, in northern Botswana - a beast, frisson of deadly danger ... and safety.
The wetland is the largest inland delta on the planet, watered by some 10 or 11 cubic kilometres of water rushing south down the Okavango River out of Angola, before hitting the northern, flat desert sands of the Kalahari Desert, and spreading out, out, nearly covering the delta zone 250km by 150km, before being sucked up by the sun, or melting into the porous, thirsty sands. Islands, islets, channels, creeks, blocked channels, hippo paths, water-covered grassy plains, impenetrable reed beds, papyrus fields, palm trees, thorn trees, baobab trees …
The swampland also incorporates the Moremi Game Reserve, offering some of the highest-density wildlife experiences on the continent – lion, elephant, crocodile, buffalo and most of that long list of creatures that once walked into the ark, two by two
But it's the smaller things, so often ignored in the obsessive search for the 'big' animals, that consume my time, and delight, during a 10-day ride, north to south, across this final garden of Eden.
Sit quietly next to a warming early-eve blaze, knobthorn acacia firewood giving off a long, slow, deep warmth, and listen.
There is never silence at night, when the nocturnals come out to play.
In cloudless winter there is never pitch-blackness either, the heavens dazzling with candelabra-like incandescence.
The stars shine out, intruding into the dark left by the setting sun, twinkling, tinkling. An orchestra of light.
Enter the orchestra of sound - twinkling, tinkling, the crescendo tink-tink-tink of hundreds, thousands, of tiny bell frogs that come to the party
Sensurround doesn't come any better, 360 degrees of t-t-t-t-t-ink, as if each tink-tink is in tune with a twinkle-twinkle of each star. Then the midranges are summonsed by some unseen conductor. Barr-barr-barrp of the smaller toads, competing with each other, trying to impose aural dominance, before the big boys come in, the baritones themselves, big, full-throat-blown toads stamping down on all their little cousins ... 'listen to this, kiddos' ... barrrrrrppppp...barrrrrrppppppp.
The vocal jousting and jostling continues until a throat tires, and the bass-notes slowly recede, leaving only the 'alto' bell-frogs to keep the symphony going ... until an upstart bassist decides it's time to blow his horn again, and be trumped by a louder call, in turn outdone by a bigger horn .... before the loudest, deepest sound, the hippo’s hronk-hronk-hronk-hyip, fills in a hole just where you thought there was no more space for sound. The final hyip sounding like a barking dog at the river's edge being snatched, mid-yelp, by a crocodile.
Lie on a rough, grassy bank, let star and sound wash away the ride from Malawi down to the top of the Okavango
Lilongwe, Lusaka, Livingstone, commercial steps towards Africa's capitalist-hardened southern tip.
Town centres here feel more organised than further north. Culverts, road-signs, pavements without gaping holes, stores and shops with freshly-painted signs and advertisements. Newer cars, cleaner cars, more expensive cars. And the prices of everything rise and rise.
Simple traveller's accomodation costs two to three times as much as the rest of Africa and Asia.
Cigarettes triple in price from Zambia to Botswana, all in the name of good health, quotes the taxman.
‘You want to kill yourself, you'll have to pay for the pleasure.’
The cost of food rises. South African supermarket franchises slip their fingers, hands and forearms deep into your pockets in the name of 'transport costs'
With the hard edge of the southern fiscal blade comes the growing number of registration plates, accents and psychoses from racism-bedeviled southern Africa as well.
The 'ugly South African' begins to display himself and his strutty, fraying plumage more and more as one progresses towards the Cape of Storms.
In Lilongwe, Malawi, a holiday-making Cape Town couple, immigration specialists (those that have brought in the foreigners who have driven South African property prices out of the pockets of most locals) open up under traditional lubrication, and belabour the old themes; crime, violence, nobody gives a stuff, nobody thinks ahead, corruption, "the blacks have this feeling of entitlement these days".
Excuse me! And who the hell has been carrying the notion of so-called divine entitlement since the 1940s?
"If it wasn't for apartheid South Africa would never be where it is today!"
What kind of one-eyed people, country, bitterness am I returning to, I wonder
Three builders in Livingstone question motives for returning to South Africa.
The brandy is blunt.
"Why didn't you stay in Hong Kong? The fireworks are just firing up down south."
For the first time in two years of travel, 50,000km down the track, large, ominous signs greet guests at hotels in Livingstone, south Zambia, a stone's throw from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. "Do not walk around at night. Take a taxi, or you will be robbed!"
There is an internet cafe 200m down road. The security guard at the hotel doorway reminds me to walk home before dark, or walk home with lighter pockets.
"You see that tree (100m away), two tourists were robbed there just two days ago. This year has been really bad."
The most dangerous animals in this neck of the woods are not the thousands of elephants or man-eating crocodiles
But with the banditry and thuggery comes one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls – Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders).
People speak of this year’s flow/level being perhaps the highest in recorded history.
From 10km away, see the mist and spray rising hundreds of feet into the sky, pummeled out of the bottom of the gorge by the sheer fury, force and weight of the falling water.
At 108m deep, it is not the deepest waterfall, nor at 1,708m across the widest, but together the dimensions form the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.
Around 1km away, one begins to hear the roar, and begin to feel the ground shake underfoot.
Closer, closer until on the Zambian side of the chasm, that is a border with Zimbabwe, one can stand 30m from falls’ edge, ground trembling, and a cacophony of noise that makes speaking difficult
Gasp at the awesome force and weight of the crashing, crushing volume.
Walk down slippery concrete paths along the face of the fall, into thick, green forest, get soaked by sheets of sleeting, driving ‘rain’, the spray thrown up into the air, falling back down again like a pelting, driving storm.
Wear a raincoat, on offer nearby from opportunist entrepreneurs, with rubber sandals and umbrellas, or be thoroughly drenched and soaked.
Upward draughts, swirls and eddies lash the water through the forest, magically casting rainbows all around. A circular rainbow over a path, there for a few seconds as the density of falling water interacts perfectly with the bright sun, then gone, as the wind breaks up the local cloud, or perhaps puffs the rainbow elsewhere.
Look into the mist obscuring most of the falls, rainbows rise and fall, grow wider and shrink.
Smaller localized bands of melded light and colour dance at one’s feet. I search desperately for the pot of gold – discovering not a cast-iron urn, only paradise.
Livingstone itself brings with it some of the long journey’s final, personal dots I am trying to connect
Great-grandfather, one Thomas Knoesen, a Norwegian engineer and elephant hunter out of Gweru (Gwelo) in Southern Rhodesia was once contracted to assist in building the railway bridge across the Victoria Falls gorge around 1905.
Family lore has it that a stamp was issued by the British South Africa Company shortly after, bearing his face, some workers and the falls. I go in search of that, or any old image of him in the old town.
Railway museum: acres of rotting trains and carriages from across the eras, curated by a passionate man, who sadly tells me that since the Zambian railways has been privatized, there is no longer any sense of heritage or history. He is paid to watch his care deteriorate daily. "All the brass, every removable knob or piece of iron or tin has long been stolen. … And all the old pictures are locked in a shed while the site awaits an upgrade …"
The railway station master points me in the direction of a ‘retired’ historian.
Knock on private door
Out rolls ‘mr historian’ skunk drunk at 4pm, dragging on my shoulder to remain upright.
Sweet, friendly, nonsensical, he understands he is incapable at that moment of searching that deeply into his mental archives.
“I have the hishtree and poetry of the railwaysh in my heart,” he points at his chest. “Pleash come back tomorrow …” says the kindly, drunk man who says he was fired, after nearly 30 years, for driving two trains to Lusaka for a service that they needed, but were not getting.
“So you were fired for trying to help?”
“Well, there were quite a few other thingsh before that….”
Livingstone’s museum chief proves most knowledgeable, and helpful
“Now just where did I put that file, G-152?”
We search his box and file-laden office for half an hour. “Come back tomorrow, it is the file most people use, as it has an original ‘thesis’ on that era of Livingstone.”
Next day be presented with a 68-page original manuscript “Thesis on town of Livingstone”, by one Duncan Watt, written in 1910.
There is no other copy. I read the frail pages, seeking reference to bloodline.
No mention, though much detail regarding infidelities, cuckolders named, bush-bound cuckolded husbands taking revenge, number of drinks drunk at each new hotel/bar, amount of game shot, and long intricate details of arrivals, departures, goods, costs, sales, the construction of the bridge, and moral and physical attributes of new members at the colonial outpost.
No mention of the sought-for genetic for-bearer, nor any sign of the stamp.
One dot in the line, missing, lost or just a fable.
The town museum does throw up a fine exhibit to its namesake, David Livingstone, clothes, watches, walking sticks, paraphernalia, diaries, and his 30cm-deep, oval-shaped personal shaving mirror, framed on either side by a pair of trophy-sized warthog tusks.
A trip to Bovu Lodge, on an island on the Zambezi River finds warnings against nocturnal meanderings: “The river is flooding the local riverbank villages, the crocs are feasting, dogs, chickens and goats every night. And a few people too.”
The flood record is taking its toll. The front bar’s floor is under water, 5m above the low water level. Manager and missus Brett and Evelyn keep adding more and more bricks to the floor in their home to leapfrog along to get to bed. “It’s already six inches under, and rising. We’ve still got at least a month to go until it stops going up
The route to the northern Okavango goes through old German colony Namibia, a minerologist’s fantasy land, home to the widest variety of semi-precious stones.
But that’s in the west. Out east, sub-tropical waterside fauna grows on the edge of the Kalahari Desert sands. Soft, silky, dusty, thin, powdery white-grey sand that throws a peculiar orange-red-yellow hue at deep dusk and dawn. It is a combination richness and depth of colour at this time, mingled with the puff-powder ground, unique to this desert that finally tells me I am reaching home, having had the extremely good fortune in a previous mlllenium to have spent a number of years in the Okavango treading and trudging through just such soil.
The delights of greeting and departure reveal themselves in an array of beautiful hand gestures.
Silent, double, open-handed motions indicated ‘good morning, how are you, all is fine, goodbye’, the same as the silent hand on heart of northeast Africa and the middle east, the same as the Indian head wiggle. Acknowledgement, and peace be upon you, brother.
Meet somebody, and clap hands two or three times, silently, but with glee. Even goodbye, not with glee of departure, but with the glee of knowing someone.
Most honourable, to me, is giving and taking with two hands, practiced from Malawi south to Botswana - give something slowly with one hand, the other very gently placed, lightly behind the giving wrist or along the forearm.
The motif: giving, greeting and receiving with two hands – honest gestures, not giving with one hand while the other is conniving behind the back.
Oriental business cards are passed and received with similar two-handed discretion and politeness.
Into the top of Botswana, off the beaten track, there is no public transport. To Seronga, a small village where the Okavango River begins expanding into the hand-shaped delta.
This is the end of a 25-year mental ride, if not the end of this physical journey.
It is as far north as I have travelled from Cape Town before. Touching Seronga will mean all continents will be crossed by land. South of Seronga will be pure pleasure and ceremony.
A government official, in chase of a stolen car, gives a 100km lift to town at 140km/h down a rutted, sandy, gulched road.
Senses scream ‘thanks for the lift until here, but I must alight’
“Where is the campsite on the river?”
“Three kilometers down the dusty track.”
Hoist 35kg and plod along a craggy, uncomfortable, calcrete (gravel, sand, calcium conglomerate) covered ‘road’.
In a residential land of old, I can speak a spattering, and importantly greet people correctly.
A donkey cart rambles past. I beg a lift. It’s hot at midday.
Two men, two donkeys, going to a cattle post out in the sticks.
The final ride down the last mile is on a tattered wooden platform of history’s oldest wheeled transport.
It’s too difficult to explain in the patois, a sereness envelopes that plodding vehicle, a chuckle, a smile, a laugh, flashing teeth, a thank you, a goodbye, my bag doesn’t feel any lighter, but something - that I did know existed inside of me – does.
Meet the man who will keep me alive for 10-days across the delta. Mothopi Kgosiekae is an ageing gentleman of the old school.
“Come and see the boat,” he says in Setswana (language of Botswana), a peculiar request, as normally it is ‘here is the boat, let’s go’.
Another ageing gentleman awaits next to the mekoro. This is my brother, Thando. The water is very high, the hippo are moving about all over, and we both want to travel with you on the canoe, as four experienced eyes are far better than two.”
Blink. No problem.
Surprise two: mekoro are traditionally hand-hewn dugout canoes, axed and adzed from appropriately-shaped trees.
Some 15-20 years ago, green types began waving the ‘you’re killing all the trees’ stick.
In supplication, a move was set afoot to make fibre-glass replicas.
Subsequent to the tree-hugging demonstration, a study showed that there was absolutely no possibility that the tree mekoros could make any kind of indent into the species’ count. Only straight trees were used – 80% had a wriggle, or bend, rendering them only proud carriers of seed and fowl.
But now fibre-glass craft proliferate the zone. Not as aesthetically pleasing, hard to sit on/in, a classic, sad case of function over form.
When true-dugouts reach the end of their lives, when their cracks are unpatchable, or their rot is untreatable, they are left by the wayside, to be used as tables, seats, until they dissolve back into the ground from which they came.
Fibre-glass mekoros will doubtless have an extended lifespan, but sun, water and hard work are cruel task-masters, with a number of the craft already revealing tattered ends and edges. What, then, in 20-years’ time, when there are dozens, or hundreds of derelict fibre-glass canoes littering this pristine wilderness? Whither then, those hug-bunnies?
Questions, not answers.
Stock provisions, make a cup of tea on a riverbank fire, and set forth.
Shoving through almost impassable papyrus thickets, fallen stems having to be pushed aside by hand. Stand, push the pole, bend, displace the soggy stems, stand, push again. Back-breaking. Consider it for a septuagenarian.
Cross the wide, gushing Okavango River pandhandle section. Standing polers crouch, or sit, lest the hard-pushing broadside current undermines the balance, paddles swish and dig, into the flat face of a 4m-high reed thicket, or at least what seems a flat face to all but the keenest, or knowing eye.
Small miracles of skill, aim across the 200m wide river, be driven downstream by force of nature, across the stream by manpower, and hit the little crack, the 1m-wide ‘hidden’ channel spot on; needles in haystacks can be found.
Deep water is where the bad guys live, or can hide unseen.
Find shallow floodplain, 1-2m deep and then follow the ‘compass’. The road is the songline, the road a sequence of island names, Xonynai, Xaugha, Kua-ka, Xumo, Xexum, Dganga, Mataba, sung out to me as we pass.
I can understand the gist of basic conversation, but speak very little. So the Information is one way, or the conversation is between brothers, who reveal a symbiotic savant-like nature, perhaps a twin-set of Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman.
The two have been hunters and swamp dwellers all their lives, hunting and pushing mekoros together since their early teens. They wear black jackets by night, lapel adorned with the star of the Zion Christian Church, which they remove to place on their shirts while working by day.
They are of the BaYei tribe, speaking SeYei, while also have a private language of brothers, mixed with Bushman words and names of islands.
They natter and twitter with each other incessantly.
“Let’s go around this (500m-wide) island this way…”
“No, let’s go the other way. I remember meeting a hippo on that corner 30 years ago when you weren’t with me.”
“Oh, but what about that crocodile we ran into on your path?”
This is their back and front garden. And they have never changed addresses.
They never shout, bicker or argue (a similar opinion I carry for most of Botswana), are in constant and total synch with each other, knowing exactly why and when the other is moving, talking, hushing …
Decades of hunting together is quickly evident. Mothopi, at the front, signals with his hand … a hippo went this way today, one finger motioning in the direction of the freshly bent, submerged grass, two fingers two days, downward-pointing v-fingers – sitatunga, an extremely shy, prized-eating, deep-swamp antelope that evolution has granted long, flexible hooves that allow it to navigate over kilometers of thick, floating grass thickets.
If one of the brothers sees an animal, no human sounds (the most disturbing for wild game) are made. Only a soft bump by the heel of the foot on the canoe, sending a vibration rather than a sound to the other, and an arm and hand pointing in a direction.
Linked in an astonishing way through gene, practice and history – two rare men totally in harmony with each other, and their incredibly peaceful, though potentially very hostile, environment.
This too, is my songline, returning down a road I have travelled on a number of occasions during an earlier era of my life, when circumstances and good friends granted me the opportunity to spend around four years in the Okavango.
This is a time to recall, lost and found loves, lifetime friends, a young man’s dreams, when the carefree spirit danced like Irish sprites.
The sounds, sights, and particularly names, are distant, though not foreign, revisiting, reliving, catching up for time lost in another hemisphere, in another lifestyle.
Southern Africa draws with an uncuttable umbilical cord force.
This is a real dot, in a long line of dots.
Rhythm: rise into the golden glow before sunup, stoke the fire and add pure, sweet swamp water to the pot, take the constitutional walk as the orb breaks the horizon, return to sip slowly on the thick, warm coffee as the light chill of night retreats totally. Pack, and cruise, at around double walking pace.
Keep away from the channels, keep away from anything that looks like a hippo patch, veer away from hippo sounds, honks, harrumphs, drive through miles and miles and miles of grasslands, the stems a metre or two out of the water, home to trillions of spiders, a universe of webs and tiny frogs.
The mekoro goes through a web every 20m, out of which tumbles a spider, into the boat. Within an hour, one, two, three dozen spiders, little ones, hair-legged, thick-legged, fat, big, are roaming around, throwing more webs crawling all over and around all parts of the body.
Insectophobe nightmare and hell. Insectophile heaven.
Wee, little frogs, 4mm jump into the passing vessel, can’t get out as the gunwales are too high, and are too small to be picked up my fingers. In a minute or two dozens of minute flying insects have covered its body, and stilled its lurches.
Day after day after day: dodge the hippos, seal the bottom of my short trousers against all the crawlies, cook up a stew at night, and listen and look in awe at the nightly orchestras.
Lions roar, others answer. Hope they don’t approach too close. Jackals and hyena speak.
Elephants trumpet, hoot and break down huge trees with resounding cracks in the search for seed and bud.
Build big blazes after a pair of elephants walk past us, 10m away.
Try and differentiate between elephants and hippos walking nearby, through water in the dark. Elephants are famously gentle around campsites, delicately tip-toeing over guy-ropes. Hippos can be far crankier, and rush over you to the water if alarmed on the wrong side of your flimsy accommodation.
All is peace in this beauty … except for a new game: the growing profusion of mechanical sounds.
Changes in national laws over the past two decades pertaining to safari-operating conditions, concessions and operating procedures have inadvertently (or not) released the mechanical beast.
Motor boats are taking advantage of the high level of the water, making up for six months of the year when around half the delta is inaccessible to them. Today it’s open season.
Tourist boats, baggage boats, wildlife department boats, freight boats,
Silence, then a distant waaaaaaaaa, that grows louder and louder over a 2 minute period, before it passes, and waaaaaaaaaaaaas again for 2 minutes until out of earshot.
There are about double the amount of camps in the delta than there were 20 years ago.
There are also dozens more flights per day.
54 mechanical sounds, from distant to close to distant again, between approximately 8am and 5pm.
At around 4 minutes each – 216 minutes of mechanical sound in a 540 minute day.
Most of the camps charge in the vicinity of US$400-US$600 per night. Seems like paradise is being eroded by very noisy lucre.
Perhaps the screen can be made bigger, or turned into HD if the sound level is turned down a little.
Without being privy to the hard costs of the hard-earned concessions, the price range excludes 98% of mankind.
The simple folk can’t afford to see this incredibly beautiful place. While the rich intelligentsia would have a pre-learned appreciation of the world’s receding natural riches, it is the ‘little folk’, perhaps not so educated, who would surely benefit most from the lessons in natural beauty and humility.
Even Botswana’s citizens would be hard-pressed to afford the steadily rising local fees to visit their own heritage.
Then there are the oddballs of the swamp, safari world.
Enter one pair: Retired local Doctor Phil tells me of the time he visited Hong Kong with Jack Bousfield, crocodile hunter extraordinaire, daredevil, and delta and desert legend, who has spent most of his life in the wilderness, the hard end of the wilderness.
Sitting up in the concrete hell (or riches) that makes Hong Kong, Jack says: “Doc, I’ve got to take a piss on some grass.”
As Doc tells it: “He took off his shoes, got in the lift of a 5-star hotel, went down, through the foyer, walked for about half an hour until he found a public park, walked behind a tree, and watered the dear plant.”